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Our Wish? A Painless Reunification

Kwon So-young


Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

This year marks the 15 year anniversary of the June 15th declaration which resulted from the summit between President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il. The two leaders have now passed on but the joint declaration may be remembered as the historic seminal event where the desire for peace and reunification produced a concrete vision in the preparation for a constructive reunification. Among the five articles of the declaration, the first says, “The reunification of South and North is an issue for the Korean race to come together and join hands to resolve in an independent manner.” Also significant, the second states, “We admit there is common ground between the South’s proposed “federation” and the North’s proposed “loose confederation” and therefore shall pursue reunification in accordance with this direction.” These articles signify that reunification is not merely a program or point of ethnic national or historical discourse to be reflected upon by generations before and after regarding what should be done but that it is also something the can be theorized with common denominators (1 nation, 2 Systems, 2 Governments) which require consideration in the discussion of the form and core aspects of reunification.

15 years later, the current South Korean administration has made a large number of publicized initiatives and statements regarding reunification, such as “Reunification Bonanza Discourse”, “the Dresden Speech”, and the inauguration of the Reunification Preparation Committee but the change in discourse on reunification is completely different. “Reunification Bonanza” or “Trustpolitik” are based on a passive economic rationale that bases reunification goals on conditions and losses and argues that if reunification is achieved it will be good and even if it is not achieved there will be no harm. This approach is not an ethnic nationalist approach to reunification but rather views reunification as a potential benefit. In the past 3 years since the beginning of the Kim Jong Un administration, not only has there been little indication of a clear direction in national development initiatives but there has also been a decided lack of thought given to North-South relations and peaceful reunification. On June 14th, just one day before the anniversary of the June 15th Joint Declaration, it seems that Pyongyang fired 3 short range missiles into the East Sea. Rather than peace, signs point to Kim Jung Un’s value system being preoccupied with military force and national pride and independence. Kim’s assertion that, “attempts at reunification by the absorption of North Korea or prayers for its collapse shall be answered with a resolute armed response” shows little evidence that a mature constructive discussion regarding reunification is likely to ensue in the near future. (See 2012’s Iron Sun Address)

Among recent studies, a public survey of South Korea Citizen’s perception of reunification (2014) and a survey North Korean resident’s consciousness of reunification (2014) show a curious result. The belief that reunification is necessary and beneficial for the sake of the Korean nation and people has faded a great deal in both North and South, and the primary concern should be the calculation of costs and benefits of reunification.

In the South, citizens responding that reunification is necessary dropped below 60% from 2008 on and 40% of respondents’ agreed with the statement that “If there is no huge burden, reunification is good”. In addition, trends showed that the younger the generation of the respondents asked, the less the need for reunification was felt. The was also a reduction in the number of responses giving reason for supporting reunification as “because we are the same nation” which shows a drop in race based support in favor of more realistic and material reasons such as “in order to end the threat of war” or “for the sake of peace and security” which saw an increase in responses. Difference in age was also reflected in responses related to the cost and benefits of reunification but in general the belief in the material effects of reunification were relatively lower than expected. Economic reunification benefits, in terms of collective and personal benefits, are expected less and North Korea’s different system, division of costs, and the amount of effort require in reunification have led to a passive attitude and doubts regarding reunification. Reunification as a national project is important but given the current circumstances of North Korea it is clear that a more innovative and cool headed approach to rapprochement is required.

According to a survey of North Korean defectors and North Koreans interviewed in 3 party countries, 95% of respondents believe reunification is necessary. The desire and expectations for reunification are obviously important for North Korean citizens. However, the main reason for such belief was reported as “in order to develop economically” followed next by “to reunify the Korean people” and “to improve the lives of North and South Koreans”. In other words, it would seem that, rather than for reasons of historical appropriateness, North Koreans believe reunification is necessary because the current state of affairs entails much hardship and any change for the better would be welcomed. In terms of gains from reunification, North Koreans perceive the gains for themselves as greater than the costs and expect reunification render a better standard of living and the resolution of longstanding economic woes.

The day and age of a reunification program based the simple rational of ethnic nationalism has passed. In the North, perceptions of benefits are largely based on expectations of economic progress. In the South, there are concerns over the problems posed by the cost of reunification, cultural differences, regional strife, and ideological friction. Neither side has put much effort into the sobering considerations of reunification costs nor have they prepared in earnest for its coming. The song ‘Our Dream Reunification’ is still sung but for some reason the mutual feelings expressed therein are disappearing. In fact, while the youth of South Korea uses the word ‘Daebak’ (bonanza) to express that something is good or wonderful, it is also used to express feelings that something is ridiculous or confusing. It remains to be seen which sense of the word applies to ‘Tongildaebaknon’ or ‘Reunification Bonanza Theory’ should reunification occur but it is clear that the current concerns of the South Korean populace require reflection, the future form of the Korean peninsula’s reunification should be put in place, and efforts to build up the common positive perceptions and feelings regarding reunification must be undertaken.

Translated by Lonnie Edge

*The views expressed in herein do not necessarily represent the views of Yonsei Institute of North Korean Studies or the editorial board of North Korean Review.

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